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On Science

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 1, 2008 - I first suspected that Boswell's life would be shortened after he bit my wife on our nuptial bed. Boswell was my dog, a feisty Toto-like terrier who shared my bachelor bed and resented the intrusion of a woman where he felt a dog -- Boswell -- ought to be. As it turns out, my suspicion was correct, and he did not live out the year. Staying with others while I and my bride were overseas, Boswell resented being denied chicken bones, ate them anyway, and died of the consequences. To this day I miss him.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 19, 2008 - Like so many others, I have been addicted to the Beijing Olympics, watching every evening for the past 10 days. NBC has been unable to resist flashing the medal count every day, of course. It would be good not to focus on the medals, but for some ignoring medals must be very hard.

I am thinking particularly of Marion Jones. She won five medals in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Seven years later, on Sept. 8, 2007, she returned them to the IOC and six months after that entered Carswell Federal Prison in Fort Worth, Texas.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 31, 2008 - In an old photo, members of the American Red Cross are removing two Spanish influenza victims from a home in St. Louis in November 1918. Both are dead. About 675,000 other Americans died of flu within 18 months, the last months of the First World War.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 17, 2008 - Scientists who study ecology view the world as a patchwork quilt of different environments, all bordering on and interacting with one another.

Consider for a moment a patch of Missouri forest, the sort of place a deer or turkey might live. Ecologists call the collection of creatures that live in a particular place a community — all the animals, plants, fungi and microorganisms that live together in a Missouri forest, for example, are the forest community. Ecologists call the place where a community lives its habitat — the soil, and the water flowing through it, are key components of the forest habitat. The sum of these two, community and habitat, is an ecological system, or ecosystem.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 3, 2008 - It would seem I am not alone in losing single socks. My Nov. 19 column exploring why my home seems to lose single socks -- not pairs, but single socks -- has generated a lot of phone calls and e-mails, just as it did when I wrote a similar column several years ago - much more comment than my usual weekly column elicits. In deference to the strong interest expressed by my readers in this issue, I thought it would be interesting to review the many alternative opinions my readers express.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 26, 2008 - Aging is the one aspect of life that none of us avoids, but most of us hate being reminded of. A wide variety of theories have been advanced to explain why humans and other animals age. Most of them focus in one way or another on the general idea that cells, the basic building blocks of our bodies, simply wear out over time.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 18, 2008 - This column represents sort of an anniversary -- I have been writing columns for the Beacon for six months this week. By way of celebrating this, I have elected to rerun an old column -- the most popular column from my three year stint as a columnist for the Post Dispatch. Devoted to explaining how scientists evaluate ideas, It engendered a lot of letters from readers who had their own ideas to contribute, and I hope you too will enjoy it.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 11, 2008 - Last Sunday at the American Heart Association convention in New Orleans, researchers reported that cholesterol-lowering drugs called statins can dramatically lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. In a study involving nearly 18,000 people 50 and older who did not have high cholesterol or a history of heart disease, the risk of heart attack was more than cut in half for people who took statins rather than a placebo.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: October 7, 2008 - More than 50,000 Chinese infants are seriously ill this week because of a failure of Chinese government food safety regulators to do their job. The toxic chemical melamine was being added to baby food milk to disguise the fact that the milk had been diluted to raise milk dealers' profits. Regulators missed this because they were relying upon a cheap and easily fooled test.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 23, 2008 - Babies the world over live on milk, rich in proteins, fats and other nutrients. But now it appears this food can be deadly to the babies who are fed it. In China over the past few weeks, thousands of babies have become ill from the milk-based bottle formula they were fed, many of the babies critically ill.

As of this week, China's Ministry of Health reports that the number of infants in China's hospitals after ingesting tainted baby formula is 12,892, and that 39,965 more with less life-threatening symptoms are being treated at their homes.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 16, 2008 - No one seeing the ring of fat decorating my middle would take me for a runner. Only in my memory do I get up with the robins, lace on my running shoes, bounce out the front door and run the streets of University City for an hour before going to work. Now my 5 K runs are 30-year-old memories. Any mention I make of my running in a race only evokes screams of laughter from my daughters, and an arch look from my wife.

Memory is cruelest when it is accurate.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 9, 2008 - I can remember when I was a Boy Scout being instructed by my scout master that if I ever got lost in the woods without a compass, I should look to see what side of a tree had moss growing on it (the idea being, I suppose, that in the Northern Hemisphere the north side of a tree get the least sun, and that mosses favor this shade). That turns out to be a real lousy way to tell direction. What I should have been told, I learned last week, was to look for a grazing cow.

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 2, 2008 - The Food and Drug Administration recently released a long-awaited draft report on the safety of a controversial chemical used to line the metal interior of canned foods and to make plastic bottles shatterproof. Called bisphenol A or simply BPA, the chemical has been banned from use in baby bottles in Canada, and legislation to restrict its use has been introduced in California, New Jersey and 10 other states.

On Science: Restaurant forensics

Aug 26, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 26, 2008 - This past week, we learned of two Manhattan high school students who, in a science project, gave us a glimpse of the future. They asked a simple question: "When you buy fish, do you get the kind of fish you think you are buying?"

Anyone who has bought fish at the market or ordered fish at a sushi restaurant knows the problem: In the store, one fish looks pretty much like another. In particular, some of the more trendy, tasty and expensive kinds of fish look a lot like cheaper substitutes. White tuna, for example, is difficult to distinguish in the store from farm-raised tilapia, although you pay a lot more for it.

Earth as seen from the moon

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 12, 2008 - One evening next week I am going to audition for a part in St. Louis Shakespeare's upcoming production of War of the Worlds (Don't ask me why a Shakespeare company is putting on a play based on a radio drama by H.G. Wells!), in which invaders from Mars attack Earth. With this sort of prospect buzzing in the back of my mind, I cannot help but note a lot of stories about Mars in the news lately.

On Science: The war on AIDS is not going well

Aug 5, 2008
2008 beacon archive chart
George Johnson | Copyright Textwriter

This first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 5, 2008 - This week the world's AIDS researchers held the 17th Annual AIDS Conference in Mexico City. The news is not good.

On Science: TV, murder and lessons learned

Jul 29, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 29, 2008 - Television replaced radio as America's primary means of home entertainment in the 1950s, and in the half-century since many critics have complained that its great potential as an educational venue has never been fully realized. However, programs marketed as entertainment are sometimes surprisingly educational, none more than the CSI programs shown on the CBS network for the last few years.

On Science: UFO sightings by reasonable people

Jul 23, 2008
Adam Baker | Flickr

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 23, 2008 - Have you ever seen something that jolted you awake from a quiet reverie, I mean REALLY got your attention when you weren't paying any? I have. Last week I was on vacation with my family at a dude ranch in Wyoming, riding by myself in the late evening through nearby pastures on a massive appaloosa horse looking at the stars in a cloudless sky and thinking about nothing in particular. And then I saw ... something.

Provided by George Johnson | Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 15, 2008 - Bats are dying. A plague has killed tens of thousands of them in the Northeastern states this spring. The cause of "white nose syndrome," named for a white fungus that appears on bats' noses and wings, is a mystery to biologists.

On Science: Tanning to death

Jul 8, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 8, 2008 - Almost all the cells in your body replace themselves as they wear out, your skin cells more frequently than any other tissue. Exposed to a lot of wear and tear, the cells of your skin divide about every 27 days to replace dead or damaged cells. In each instance, the skin sloughs off dead cells from the surface and replaces these with new cells from beneath. The average person will lose about 105 pounds of skin by the time he or she turns 70.